Tuesday 10 July 2012

New York galleries & birds then an Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2... more birds... dolphins... & whales...

looking down on the prow from open-air deck eleven, underneath the Captain's bridge. watercolour in sketchbook

Jennifer and I recently spent seven days and nights crossing the Atlantic by ocean liner. It was an amazing trip.

This is far from my normal type of holiday - Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is an absolute luxury ship, modern but harking back to the 1920's & 30's when Art Deco ruled. Basically she's a floating high-starred hotel. A last-minute offer gave us a pretty good price compared to what you'd pay for return flights to New York plus seven nights accommodation with full board. It was so much more satisfying than flying. 

standing on the prow. watercolour in sketchbook

New York

New York overwhelms with its galleries and museums - the Guggenheim... MoMA... the Met... the American Museum of Natural History. I could have happily spent my five days within the walls of those last two. If there wasn't so much else to see...

Central Park is huge and remarkably good for birdwatching. Unsurprisingly there were numerous house sparrows, starlings and pigeons, all just like we have here. But also:
American robins - named by homesick early settlers from Europe but in fact more closely related to our blackbird than our own red-breasted robins.
Northern cardinals - little hopping pirate birds in bold red coats with a slightly spiked hairdo and black eye patches and beard.
A hawk ('red-shouldered' perhaps?) - as large as a buzzard it sat motionless in a tree whilst various songbirds frantically attempted to drive it away. Unknown Orioles in stunning gold and black plumage were swooping continually at the hawk, actually striking it with their beaks - yet it still didn't move.

In nearby Morningside Park (a reminder of Edinburgh!) we saw a beautiful black-crowned night heron that skulked at the reed edge.
Nearby on a rock - the closest I've ever been to a cormorant. What an amazing jewel-blue eye. Red-eared terrapins swim together in all the ponds and pools, emerging from the water to clamber lazily across one another as they seek the optimum sunspot.

Once the torrential rain of our first two days had subsided we saw a good assortment of butterflies. Some were species we get here - small whites, green veined white, perhaps a comma and perhaps a red admiral. The tortoiseshells are a different type to ours. Most striking of all was a large and dark butterfly we didn't know, the wonderfully named 'mourning cloak'. Metallic maroon with a pastel yellow border to the wings and a row of aqua-blue dots running above, the same colour as the cormorant's eye.

Several times we saw racoons which in Central Park scavenge around the waste bins as squirrels do here, or like foxes in our bigger cities. They were almost totally unfussed by human presence, even by a group of tourists that peered right into a bin at one.

One evening we sat on a bench in the dusk eating cupcakes (don't tell) and watched fireflies glowing gently over the grasses. The colour and effect is exactly that of yellow LEDs turning silently on and off. They're incredible, unreal. To man before electronics they must have been more amazing still.

Then onto the boat:

from the stern of the ship, above the open-air swimming pools. watercolour in sketchbook

The Ocean Crossing

Queen Mary 2 is huge, taking up to 2,620 passengers and 1,253 crew. Our cabin (stateroom is the term used) had a balcony that looked directly onto friendly orange lifeboat 'Hamilton 8'. Lots of entertainments are provided - cinema, library, planetarium, lectures and two corridors of board game tables. A gym and swimming pools. Dancing performances and lessons. Numerous musicians. The best of all was a group of six actors from RADA who brilliantly performed Canterbury Tales and the Merchant of Venice. 

in the QM2 library - one of the few times I felt sick!.. high up and at the very prow of the ship. coloured pen

Even just chatting with fellow passengers is a nice and regular happening:
There was Kim and his wife Jennifer (she a writer of historical fiction) who were travelling to their current home in Germany after a year back in the States;
Dennis and Janet, biologists on their way to visit Charles Darwin's Down House in Kent. Excited to meet people who'd been there and could enthuse about it (we visited last year and thoroughly enjoyed);
A Scottish couple and two daughters, moving back to Edinburgh after living in the States. She and Jennifer (of Leo & Jennifer, not of Kim & Jennifer!) had attended the same school.

container ship passing, mid-Atlantic. watercolour in sketchbook

I did sketches in pen and some quick watercolour studies but most often I just wanted to walk on deck and look out at endless miles of waves. The more time spent out there the more likely it was I'd see something. There was quite a lot of wildlife but for two or three days in a row I didn't see any other sign of man, no passing ships. It feels quite amazing to be in the middle of the ocean, alone and days from land. (It feels even more amazing when you're looking at that whilst sitting in one of the on-deck swimming pools!)

from the stern of the ship (2), above the open-air swimming pools. watercolour in sketchbook

Despite being so far from land there were birds to see. Fulmars and great shearwaters were the two most common. At times among the shearwaters there were some much smaller dark birds (all dark?) which were some sort of petrel but I couldn't ever identify. There were a few gulls but none seen well enough to identify either. A few all-dark skuas except for a white patch towards the end of each wing. Two followed one-another in high and low swoops, seeming friendly rather than hostile. In the UK I'd say they were great skuas, 'bonxies', but looking at the north-east America books it seems there are other possibilities.

Both fulmars and shearwaters came really close to the boat. Fulmars following us but shearwaters flapping up and away as our bow wave started to ripple their ocean resting places. The shearwaters look the larger of the two, but only just. They fly low, taking advantage of wind to increase speed and glide low and fast in zigzagging flight, wingtips skimming the waves.

shearwater sketches & notes, sketched from my photos whilst sitting in the board-game corridor. pen & pencil

Often we saw dolphins or/and porpoises but we couldn't ever decide what species. In books borrowed from the cosy library on deck 8 we learned there are many to choose from. Sometimes we'd see a whole large pod of them. One particular evening as the sun set below the horizon around 8:30pm (on the west to east crossing the clock moves forward an hour every day) the whole sea turned to molten metal. Smoothly rippling yellows and silvers and blues. Dolphins kept appearing all around. Almost always they were in groups of several but often in groups of many more. It was difficult to count but one gathering had at least 40 separate animals. Scanning across the sea with my binoculars I could see them dotted all around, as far away as 10x42 magnification would allow. Sometimes they were just white turbulence on top of the water, sometimes fins were rising above, sometimes sleek or squatter bodies would leap fully out of the waves. 

unidentified dolphins or porpoises, from the QM2 one beautiful evening

And most exciting of all, the same evening, amongst all these dolphins - sperm whales!! At least two. A curved right-angled nose would appear, then a long stretch of sleek wet dark, then a shallow fin, then another long length of dark body. One of them, after all that flesh and fat and blubber had slid across the water, showed its tail, raised it perfectly upright, gave it a flick and dived down below the waves.

me painting on QM2, below the Captain's bridge, knowingly photographed. photo by Dennis Kolesar

me painting at the prow, unknowingly photographed! photo by Jennifer Alexander

A brilliant trip.

Next time I hope we can take the boat both ways.

looking down on the prow from open-air deck eleven, underneath the Captain's bridge. watercolour in sketchbook


  1. Quite an amazing adventure. I must admit to being quite envious. Understandably a much better option for travel than flying.
    Enjoyed the plain air sketches.

    Your description of our North American Robin is quite fitting. I'll never understand just how our, what I refer to as, Orange -breasted Thrush got the name. The person who named it a Robin must have been terribly homesick, suffering from poor vision, or simply drunk.

    Ernest Somers

  2. We'll be up in Oban 2/7-16/7, then down to Soton to catch the Queen home on the 17th. Thanks for the super drawings. Isn't she a magnificent vessel?